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Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. re-energize 'American Idol'

Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. at the "American Idol" Season 13 premiere in Los Angeles, on Jan. 14, 2014
Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. at the "American Idol" Season 13 premiere in Los Angeles, on Jan. 14, 2014
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By all accounts, “American Idol” has moved back closer to the likable chemistry between the judges that the show had during the Simon Cowell years. “American Idol” had its lowest-rated and most controversial season (Season 12) in 2013, due largely to viewer complaints about the bad chemistry between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, who each lasted just one season with the show. Even with the huge decrease in ratings, “American Idol” is still Fox’s top-rated entertainment series. “American Idol” Season 13 premieres in two parts on Jan. 15 and Jan. 16, 2014, at 8 p.m. EST/PST.

Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. at the "American Idol" Season 13 premiere event in Los Angeles, on Jan. 14, 2014
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For “American Idol” Season 13, the judges are Harry Connick Jr. (who served as a guest mentor in past “American Idol” episodes), Keith Urban (who joined in Season 12) and Jennifer Lopez, who was a judge on “American Idol” in Seasons 10 and 11. Randy Jackson, one of the original “American Idol” judges, has now become the “American Idol” in-house mentor, a role that was previously held by Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine. Ryan Seacrest continues to host “American Idol,” a show he has been with since the beginning.

On Jan. 14, 2014, an advance screening of the show’s Season 12 premiere was held at select movie theaters in America. The screening was followed by a live Q&A that was Webcast from UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles. Seacrest moderated the Q&A, which had Lopez, Urban and Connick on the panel. Questions were taken from people online, as well as from people in the audience. Here is what these “American Idol” stars said during the discussion.

What are you looking for in the next American Idol?

Lopez: I think what we’re always looking for is what we’re always looking for: somebody who can have a sustained career over a long period of time, somebody who’s the full package, who cam come in, who can touch your heart with their singing, and just reaches through the television into the hearts of America. That’s what’s going to win at the end of the day.

Keith, what stands out when you think about all the cities you’ve been to and what you found and what you brought back? What is most memorable to you?

Urban: It sounds so simple but the level of talent, the level of natural, raw talent. For me, what I always loved watching about “Idol” is watching someone from some town I never heard of or some small little place, and they have this amazing gift, but they don’t have anything else yet. They have “it,” but they don’t have the rest yet. This journey allows them to get all that, and we watch them blossom right before their eyes.

Harry, in a preview clip for Season 13, you’re shown picking up a male contestant like a baby and twirling him around. How much did you enjoy doing that?

Connick: I haven’t bathed since. That son of gun smelled good!

Lopez: Did he just say backstage, “I could watch that over and over?”

Connick: My favorite part is when Jen does that giggle. I could watch that over and over. It’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life! I love it!

Jennifer, do you ever just roll your eyes at Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr.’s shenanigans?

Lopez: All the time. Regularly. I love being between these two guys. That didn’t come out right.

Connick: That’s going to translate well into text.

Lopez: [She laughs] I love being on the panel between these two guys. And they do have a lot of banter going on. And I am kind of the girl in the middle sometimes, but I do enjoy it. They make me laugh. I think the danger for me this season is not to come off like a giggling fool because they make me laugh so much. We’re really having a good time. They’re awesome.

Connick: That’s my goal though. That’s all I want to do. It’s so much fun … anything to get her to lose it. It’s so easy.

Lopez: Writing me notes. It’s like, “Oh, stop!”

Harry, you’ve done music, movies, Broadway and television. If you had to pick a favorite, which would it be?

Connick: I think performing, I guess. I love Broadway, but it’s not me. I’m playing a character. I love doing films, but it’s a completely different vibe. I think being on this stage right now, even though it’s a different vibe. It’s not performing but it’s the most home-like to me. Doing live shows, if I had to pick. I’m glad I can get to do more.

What’s your favorite song? And has anyone on “American Idol” ever sung it for you?

Urban: I don’t really have any favorite songs. I always get asked that. I really don’t have a favorite. People do come on the show and sing some of our songs though. It’s a strange situation because you’re just hoping to God that they sing it great. The worst thing is for someone to come on and murder a song.

How do you handle that?

Urban: The way I’ve done it is that is I do in two parts. I say, “Firstly, thank you for singing my song. That’s really flattering. Now, it was terrible …” I don’t literally say that, but I think you’ve got to give the critique afterward, but I want them to know that I really appreciate that they do that.

Jennifer, have you found a contestant that reminds you of your own story?

Lopez: I think every year I’ve done it, there’ve been girls that come in who remind me of myself at that time when I was auditioning and going out there. That’s what I love about the show. Many times that’s happened — and this year as well.

What do you feel when you see a contestant break down in tears?

Lopez: It really is overwhelming and it’s humbling. Sometimes I can’t even look at them. I have to look away. It may be misread, but the truth is that it touches my heart so much that I can’t even let it all the way in, because I will start sobbing. You guys know. I will start sobbing.

And then later on, when I’m thinking about it at home, I’m like, “What that girl said, I can’t believe it.” I’m really grateful that I’m able to do what I love, and that it can inspire or make somebody believe in themselves more in any way That’s probably the best thing in life, I think.

Harry, after being a mentor on “American Idol,” why did you want to be a judge?

Connick: I think the simple answer is that they called and asked me if I wanted to be a judge. I had a great time mentoring. It’s a big commitment. You can ask anybody on this stage. Not only is it a big-time commitment, but all of us want to take this job really, really seriously. I just wanted to make sure that if I did do it that lived up to the reputation that “American Idol” has already set.

But they called and said, “Do you want to do it?” I really hoped that it worked out, because I loved the show, and I was really excited about the prospect of working with this crew and Randy [Jackson], who’s not here right now, who’s amazing. I was very happy that they asked.

Keith, who pulls the most pranks out of you three judges?

Urban: Harry’s a bit of a prankster. You guys would guess that, right?

Seacrest: I think he makes a sport of it.

Connick: There haven’t been any pranks yet. I’m still trying to worm my way in. Now that I know that I can …

Seacrest: The door is open.

Jennifer, what’s it like working with Ryan Seacrest, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr.?

Seacrest: Dream come true?

Lopez: You took the words right out of my mouth.

Seacrest: Once again!

Lopez: It really is. I really do look forward to coming to work every day. It’s true. It’s what I loved about “Idol” before, even when I did my seasons with Randy [Jackson] and Steven [Tyler] and you, Ryan. I had a ball, which is what made me want to come back when they asked me back again. And I got luck with these two good-lookin’ fellows right here.

Keith, if you were an “American Idol” contestant, what advice would you want to receive?

Urban: A performance of mine when I was 16 just popped up on YouTube recently. It’s weird. I don’t remember doing it. It was on a TV singing talent show in Australia when I was 16. I got some fairly harsh kind of criticism from the judges, but I also thought they were right. I still had a lot to learn about my craft, and I took that to heart.

What was their biggest criticism?

Urban: It wasn’t very good. I was watching and I was like, “Oh, dude, I thought I sang better than that!” It wasn’t very good. And they guy said, “You’re kind of just opening your mouth and sound is coming out. And that’s about all that’s happening, but I can tell you enjoy it. And if it’s something you want to do, I would advise you to learn more about singing properly.” He was right. I wasn’t very good.

Harry, you’ve gotten the nickname Harsh Harry for your judging style on “American Idol.” Is this an accurate description?

Connick: I think sometimes when you give someone your opinion — because essentially, what we were hired to do is give an opinion about the performance — sometimes people don’t hear the answer they want to hear. And if I don’t like it, I don’t think I’m mean, but I say it succinctly. I’ll say, “I didn’t like it.”

I think it’s key, especially now, as the numbers start narrowing down, and you start thinking about who can make it all the way, I think specificity is the key. You can’t really tell somebody, “Ah, I don’t know. It didn’t really do it for me.”

I’m going to tell you very specifically, in most cases, what it is. Maybe the specificity might be, “It didn’t move me.” It may be a technical thing that I like to impart. And if that’s harsh, I can’t do anything about the way people interpret what I say.

But I can promise you this: I love those kids — all of them. I would want somebody to tell me — and they did. “Hey, bro, that song you just played was no good. The way you just sang that was terrible.” That was just on Tuesday.

[He says jokingly] I was with Keith. I played him my new music. I was like, “Come on, what did you think.” He was like, “I hate it.”

Keith, how do you manage your “Idol” responsibilities with your hectic touring schedule?

Urban: That’s a good question. That’s a question for all of us. Ryan, you’re doing one of 25 other things … I’m not alone. There’s a lot of you guys here tonight who are holding down more than one job, and you’re trying to figure out how to balance family and work; there’s limited time for all of it. I think it’s just balance. I was told that balance is never achieved; it’s just maintained. So I just try and do my best to maintain.

Seacrest: To answer a bit of that question for Keith, We would be in a city for auditions, and the second we’d finish, and he would fly out overnight, be in another city the next day, perform, and come right back. That’s what it’s like for everybody when we’re doing this, except for me, because I can’t sing.

Urban: And he hates flying.

If you were performing today, what three judges would you want up there to hear you?

Connick: I feel like we’re playing Password.

Lopez: From the past “American Idol” panel or just anybody?

You can pick whatever judges you would like.

Urban: Ellen [DeGeneres].

Lopez: I’d go with Ellen too.

Connick: When he said "anyone," I’m thinking of Thor or some fictional character.

Lopez: I would pick all the nice judges, like Ellen and Paula [Abdul] … and myself.

Connick: I don’t know. We all love Ellen. Ellen is pretty fun. We just love Ellen. I’d pick Ellen.

Jennifer, what is it like on the “American Idol" set behind the scenes, when the camera’s not running?

Lopez: It’s pretty much like when the camera’s running.

Connick: When is the camera not running?

Lopez: It’s true. They have cameras running, even when we’re doing our hair and makeup. It’s pretty much the same. Who these people are on camera, including myself, is who we are off camera as well. It’s a lot of joking around, a lot of talking, a lot of chatting. We talk about our families a lot more off camera. We talk about the kids and how they’re doing.

Seacrest: They give me relationship advice.

Lopez: We do. That’s true. I love that part.

Connick: How’s that going?

Lopez: Our advice is not that good.

Who is the hardest judge to impress this year?

[The audience shouts, “Harry!”]

Connick: I think maybe because I listen so intently … to every single contestant. People come up to me all the time and say, “Are you OK? Are you angry?” I have an intense face, my wife tells me all the time. I love life. I’m happy, but sometimes, I was backstage, and I was watching the screen and my face, I’m like, “Dude, lighten up a bit. You look mean!” But I’m really, really, really listening.

I’m just going to go out and say it: I think we have a pretty low standard right now. And yes, I am hard to impress, because I think we can do better. I think there’s amazing talent out there. I’m sitting up here with some of them, but we can do better than what’s out there. Let’s just get really real. It has nothing to do with talent. It has to do with the standard.

This is America, man. This is the greatest country in the world. We have access, especially now, to get to any kind of musical education, any kind of influence. It’s all on your phone.

So yeah, I guess honestly I am a little hard to impress, but it’s just a challenge to these young performers to work at your frickin’ craft! Work at it! Practice. Go buy a book. If you can’t afford a book, go to the library.

I learned 90 percent of what I know in one room in a public school in New Orleans. Not in college. I learned it in high school. I don’t have a frickin’ [college] degree. I took this so far. Damn it! [He pretends to leave in mock anger.]

Lopez: We love Harry!

Seacrest: The irony of us being at UCLA, and you don’t have a [college degree] …

Connick: Yeah. I just used up my time for the rest of the night.

Seacrest: Make sure you finish. Get your degree.

Jennifer, you’ve conquered so many different worlds: music, movies, TV, fashion. What keeps you inspired?

Lopez: I love what I do. I have an insatiable appetite for creating things and wanting to get better at what I do and always growing and never stopping. I don’t know. It’s something I was born with. It’s definitely a drive. It’s a passion, and it’s driven for a love for what I do.

Harry, describe yourself in one word.

Connick: Struggling. I struggle every day with trying to be a better dad, a better husband, better musician, better artist. It consumes me, and I don’t see an end in sight. So it’s a struggle. We all do. We want to be better people. We want to be better at our craft. So I’d say “struggling.” I’ve been very blessed, but I struggle.

Lopez: We love Harry!

Seacrest: He does not struggle at the gym. He hasn’t missed one workout in — what is it — three years? Something like that. It’s very frustrating.

Ryan, do you ever get attached to the contestants? Is it hard for you to see them go?

Seacrest: It is because you’re standing up next to them, and you can feel them shaking; you know their hearts are beating. Sometimes right before the result is read on the air, they’re totally silent. Sometimes they’re talking to each other.

And I look down on that card, and for a split second, it’s in my head, I know which one is going to go. And that’s tough sometimes, but it’s part of the process. And I think we all feel that way, especially when you get attached to the contestants toward the end.

Keith, now that contestants have the option to play instruments in their auditions, how do you think that enhances or detracts from their overall performance?

Urban: I think it depends. First of all, I love the fact that they allow that, because I prefer to sing playing my guitar or playing piano or something. I don’t really love just standing and singing without an instrument. I understand that a lot of people feel the same. We want to hear them in their most comfortable environment, so I’m glad that we allow that.

At the same time, we hear some people who probably shouldn’t play as well. And that is also a great moment, because sometimes they’re stuck behind this instrument, and they’re actually better without it. We give them an opportunity to see that and say, “You’re actually better without that. Work on just singing, because you’ve got it.”

How often do you think you disagreed about a contestant in the auditions?

Lopez: A lot. Obviously, two of us have to agree for [a contestant] to go through, but it would vary. It wasn’t like we always agreed or they always agreed. There was always a time when one of us was like, “Mmm, I don’t know. Mistake.”

Connick: Yeah, a couple of times, in the moment, it gets … I don’t know if “heated” is the right word, but tense, really intense. There’s been, I don’t know, 20 times when we really got into it, but we love each other, and it’s based on respect. I respect these two, and I like to have a reasonable dialogue.

Lopez: We love to argue.

Connick: I learned a long time ago when I got married: Just don’t argue.

Lopez: That’s why I like arguing with you, because at some point, you give up. It’s Jennifer Lopez. No, I give up, baby. I can’t hang with you.

Urban: I love it when we say no to somebody. Jen will write down “no,” and then we let them sing a bit more, and something happened in the song. It happened at least once. It’s a yes!

Connick: We’d draw an “n” for no. And this happened so many times: I’d look, and they’d draw an extra line for “maybe.”

Urban: The “n” became an “m.”

Connick: But interestingly, more often than not, we all responded to the same type of thing. We responded in different ways.,

Lopez: And what I loved too about this panel, I do look over and go, if I have a “no,” and he has a “yes,” it’s like, “OK, now I need to know why he said yes.” So there’s a lot of cooperation, I think, on this panel.

Urban: Because we don’t want to miss anything.

Can it change your mind?

Lopez: Sometimes we’d dig our heels in.

Connick: Jennifer sits in between us, and sometimes we’ll be talking, almost to the point of not hearing … And a lot of times, I’d be like, “Oh, I really see what you’re saying,” and it can change your mind.

Lopez: Yes, it can.

Can you talk about the biggest arguments you’ve had so far?

Lopez: We had a couple. One was we had a discussion about one contestant’s performance, when me and Harry got into it a little bit.

Would you like to elaborate?

Lopez: I think you’re going to see it. It’s great TV.

Connick: I will say this: I think it really, truly bugged all of us that we had to send some really good talent home, which just goes to show that this year is going to have some ridiculous talent. There were a couple of times where we were like, “Oh my God, did we really just send that person home?” And then the next person would come out and you’d be like [he breathes a sigh of relief], “Oh, that’s …” It’s hard!

Urban: It’s crazy too, because we’re in a strange time right now. You don’t have to be able to sing to have a huge career. There’s a lot of trickery that can make you sound real good on record, and you can sell a lot of records and have a huge career. And when people go and see you live, and it’s not so great, but you can maintain that for a long time.

And so there’s the question now of what are we looking for? We’re constantly asking ourselves, because this guy or girl might look fantastic, they have a good tone, their pitch is not so great. We can fix that. They can sell a lot of records, but they’re not really the real deal. This person has an amazing voice, but I don’t know if they’re going to sell any records. Which one should we send through? Which one is the most talented? I think there’s got to be a feeling that this person connects with me somehow.

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